Sunday, August 29, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill Hearings: Disorder Aboard the Deepwater Horizon

Gulf of Mexico oil spill hearings reveal little about the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig; A Wall Street Journal report discloses a haphazard operation aboard the rig prior to its explosion

By Nicholas Moroni

Whether additional measures could have been taken to prevent the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was the central topic throughout federal investigative hearings in Houston this week.

All week, a joint panel hosted by the US Coast Guard and the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement scrutinzed - and discovered little - the actions of a number of players with connections to the doomed rig.

Throughout this past week, representatives from BP, Transocean (the Swiss countractor that leased the Deepwater to BP), and other companies largely dodged questions and played a blame game, while five witnesses invoked their Fifth Amendment rights, and refused to testify.

The Washington Post reported last week on the testmony of Transocean's Paul Johnson, who accused BP of swapping a more experienced well-site leader for one the oil giant favored - albeit one with less experience. However, The Wall Street Journal cited a counterattack by BP, stating: "BP has said that Transocean bears at least partial responsibility...because of the equipment's failure."

That "equipment" would be the blowout preventer - the device that seals off a well in the event of an explosion. In the case of the Macondo well, the blowout preventer failed to do so.

Another recent article in The Journal also paints a portrait of disorder and disconcern with regard to a crucial test to the failed Macondo well in the days leading up to the Deepwater's demise, and the 86 days of crude that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. According to the article, which sites investigative records, and the testimonies of witnesses from this week's hearings, several officials aboard the Deepwater allegedly failed to seriously assess unusually high pressure readings. The readings needed to be taken prior to a test that would enable the rig to make sure that cement and steel inside the well were locked together. The cement and steel had to bind together to prevent any natural gas from leaking, so the rig could depart the site and move on to another job.

Robert Kaluza, a BP well site leader, who declined to testify this week, told BP internal investigators that decisions made by some of the company's officials may have been done in an effort to expedite the process. "Maybe [they] were trying to save time." BP has also been accused of having economic incentives - moving forward in an attempt to pursue other drilling projects.

The article also states that an unusual amount of mud was removed (ten times the usual amunt) below the blowout preventer - possibly to drill deeper. Mud holds down any gas that may leak, so wells are usually tested before they are utilized.

In this case, the excessive amount of mud removed may have caused the potent mixture of natural gas and oil to surge up a the well and set the rig ablaze. What's more, the faulty blowout preventer failed to seal the well and prevent the dangerous concotion from rising to the top.

The well was also referred to by BP employees as the "nightmare well," prior to the explosion.

As for the federal joint hearings - they will resume on October 4 in either New Orleans or Houston.

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